Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov has been suspended three regular season games without pay for “inappropriate conduct,” the NHL announced Saturday. Kuznetsov will not appeal the suspension.
Kuznetsov tested positive for cocaine while representing the Russian national team at the world championships in May, earning a four-year ban from international play from the International Ice Hockey Federation.
“I agreed to the suspension,” Kuznetsov said Saturday, the first time he has addressed the incident with reporters. “I want to say thanks to this organization, to the [NHL Players’ Association], to the NHL for their support and to the fans. There’s a lot of people who are supporting me, and I’m going to appreciate it, and as a hockey player, the only chance to say thanks to them is to prove on the ice. Growing as a person, I want to get better and I’m going to learn from this, for sure.”
The IIHF considers cocaine a prohibited drug. The NHL does not, so typically a first positive test does not lead to a suspension, and though the league didn’t initially announce any discipline for Kuznetsov, it left open the possibility pending a meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman to review his conduct. That meeting took place Monday and probably centered on how Kuznetsov apparently misled league officials in late May, when a video of Kuznetsov sitting beside two lines of a white, powdery substance during a team trip to Las Vegas last season circulated on social media.
At the time, he issued a statement denying that he ever used drugs, and the Capitals and NHL also issued separate statements deeming the matter closed after conducting their own investigations and accepting his explanation. Kuznetsov maintains that he did not take drugs the night the video was taken, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Asked if he regrets putting out a statement in May saying he never used drugs, Kuznetsov said: “I’m sorry, but I cannot add anything more. I want to move forward, and the one thing I can do best is play hockey. I feel bad for my friends, for my teammates, for the organization, for the fans that they have to deal with this news. But I will pay back more than people give me right now.”
NHL players who test positive for cocaine or marijuana may be contacted by the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and recommended to a treatment program, but it’s not required. After the IIHF announced Kuznetsov’s positive test last month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly released a statement saying Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through an education and counseling program and agreed to a regular testing protocol as part of that program.
Kuznetsov called this a “pretty hard summer” and said he “learned how to be father of two children” in the process. He and his wife welcomed a baby boy, Fedor, in early June. He decided to stay off social media and focus on his family.
“He and I have had a number of conversations,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “This is a really — I think it’s a career-defining time in his life. So I think he’s probably a little bit relieved to just be able to move past it and realized that the league has made the decision that they want to make and now we can get totally moving forward. But in our conversations, him and my relationship is one that it’s important that I am there for him, but I also make sure that he’s accountable for what’s happened and realizing that how he reacts to this adversity is what’s important to me.”
Kuznetsov was the Capitals’ leading scorer in their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, tallying 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 games, and Washington is hopeful he can return to that form after what General Manager Brian MacLellan previously referred to as a “frustrating” last season. His overall play was inconsistent, with 21 goals and 51 assists in 76 games.
“He’s one of the best players in the league, in my mind,” MacLellan said. “He’s a big part of our organization, a big part of our team, and he was a big part of our Stanley Cup win. He’s an important member for us, and we have expectations that he’ll get back to that level and maybe even better going forward.”
The Capitals will get some salary cap relief while Kuznetsov is suspended because his $7.8 million cap hit will be off the books until he returns Oct. 8 against the Dallas Stars. With a projected 23-man roster, the team is currently more than $1.3 million over the salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million, according to CapFriendly.com, so Kuznetsov’s suspension will buy them an additional week to become compliant. With Kuznetsov not available to start the season, Washington probably will have to carry at least one extra forward in addition to him. The Capitals open the season Oct. 2 in St. Louis against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.
“There is some people who look for motivation in their life and there is always challenges in your life, and for me this opportunity is pretty clear,” Kuznetsov said. “I can prove to a lot of people that I’m still a pretty good player.”
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